The 10 Best Lyricists in Hip Hop
Hip hop has ingrained itself as the top mainstream genre today. There’s such a large following that you always see the ‘best lyricists’ debates pop all over the internet. Since the music comes from a lot of different, vivid cultures, you can never reach a unanimous decision.
But anyway, here are, what I consider to be, my top 10 best hip-hop lyricists of all time. Just so you know, the list is entirely subjective and interchangeable. Let’s dive in.
When Eminem first arrived on the hip-hop scene, he had no precedence as a white rapper to live up to. Naturally, he was met with a lot of scrutinies.
It was through his freestyle ability that he slowly started to make a name for himself in the underground scene. Ultimately, he turned into one of hip hop’s biggest, most respected artists of all time, earning the title “The King Of Rap”.
Eminem’s knack for complex schemes, rhyming anything, and dissing his contemporaries into oblivion made him stand out from as early as the Slim Shady LP in 1999. The guy, during the Slim Shady era, could make you feel deep sorrow and fits of laughter on the same album.
With lyrics like the following, Eminem established himself as someone not to be messed with.
“And there’s a million of us just like me, who cuss like me; who just don’t give a f*** like me, who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me. It just might be the next best thing but not quite me!” – The Real Slim Shady
“Don’t be a r*tard, be a king? Think not. Why be a king when you can be a God?” – Rap God
Nas’ best years may be behind him. But throughout the ’90s and ’00s, he built an impeccable legacy as a legendary MC.
He is often regarded in high respect by his peers and critics alike. That’s because his storytelling and lyricism were, quite honestly, unparalleled. In fact, he rap-battled a prime Jay-Z and came out on top.
Nas’ songs were full of emotions and introspection. He took inspiration from the streets of the East Coast and served as an inspiration to countless others. These are just a couple of examples of his lyrical abilities.
“Before we came to this country, we were kings and queens, never porch monkeys. There was empires in Africa called Kush. Timbuktu, where every race came to get books” – Kush
“Plan to leave something behind so your name will live on. No matter what, the game lives on.” – Project Windows
For how much Jay-Z has accomplished both inside and outside the music industry, it is not an over-exaggeration to say that his lyricism is underrated. He has given us a whole lot of great moments in his vast and starry career.
Jay-Z’s rhymes can best be described as wise, reflective, and catchy. One look and you can tell the way his mind works and the thought he puts into his work.
He grew up in the poverty-stricken, crime-filled streets of Brooklyn. You can find that theme persistent in his earlier works like D’Evils’, “We used to fight for building blocks, Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killin’.”
He, then, adopted the mindset of a hustler and business, which is also quite evident in songs like Empire State of Mind, “I got it made, If Jeezy’s payin’ LeBron, I’m paying Dwyane Wade.”
You don’t get to be one of the biggest names in the Golden Age of Hip Hop without having near flawless lyrics and rhythm. Such is the case of Rakim.
He’s been nicknamed ‘the God MC’ because of the sheer level of his rhymes. He furthered what lyricism meant in hip hop. His intellect and Islamic faith were clear in his songs. Added to that, his authoritative delivery and uses of poetic devices like enjambment, and Rakim stood out amongst the crowd.
Some of his best lyrics include “I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke. Now I slam it when it’s done and make sure it’s broke. When I’m gone, no one gets on ‘cause I won’t let Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set” – I Ain’t No Joke
“The rhymes is sportable, microphone is portable. For any immortal man, swords is not affordable” – To the Listeners
5. Andre 3000
One half of the hip-hop group Outkast, Andre 3000 came to prominence in the mid-90s when the East and West Coasts were at each other’s throats. So, coming from the south, he and his partner in crime, Big Boi did something right to make a name for themselves.
Andre 3000’s command of storytelling, creativity, and the actual substance in his words are something to behold. He is also a master of wordplay with uniquely structured songs. Add speed and flow to his arsenal and Andre wouldn’t be someone you would want to mess with.
Lyrics like the following are prime examples of his talent.
“Even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die/Horoscopes often lie, and sometimes y’/Nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever” – Aquemini
“I hope we feel like this forever/Forever, forever ever, forever ever?/Forever never seems that long until you’re grown” – Ms. Jackson
6. The Notorious B.I.G
Biggie’s career was cut short due to his unfortunate passing. But, in a span of less than a decade, he established himself as one of the greatest rappers of all time. You can’t mention Gangsta rap without including Biggie’s name.
This mellow but deep voice, paired with his charismatic flow gave a nice feel to his songs. The juxtaposition of his dark lyrics, along with his innate talent to paint the most colorful pictures made his songs iconic.
B.I.G was well aware of his gangsta background, which often shone in his music. His street-style words influenced a lot of upcoming East Coast rappers since they were quite relatable.
“A foolish pleasure? Whatever/ I had to find the buried treasure, so grams I had to measure/ However, living better now, Coogi sweater now/ Drop top BM’s, I’m the man, girlfriend.” – Big Poppa
“When I die, f*ck it, I wanna go to hell/ Cause I’m a piece of sh*t, it ain’t hard to f*cking tell/ It don’t make sense, going to heaven with the goodie-goodies/ Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies.” – Suicidal Thoughts
7. MF Doom
The self-proclaimed hip-hop supervillain, MF Doom was a highly influential rapper of the late ’00s and 10s. Even though he never found mainstream success, he will always be known as one of the most lyrically proficient rappers of all time.
He is one of the few artists to create his own style. He was unpredictable and complex. His ability to weave a story through his wild poetry and single-syllable rhymes earned him the respect of the community.
With his flow and an uncanny ability to rhyme, he changed the rules of hip hop. There were no conventional meters when it came to MF Doom. His goal was to keep his listeners engaged and that he did to a tee.
“Everything that glitters ain’t fishscale, Lemme think, don’t let her faint get Ishmael/ A shot of Jack got her back it’s not an act stack, Forgot about the cackalack, holla back, clack clack blocka/ Villainy, feel him in ya heart chakra, chart toppa, Start shit stoppa be a smart shoppa.” – “Figaro” from Madvillainy
“Y’all can’t stand right here, In his right hand was your man’s worst nightmare/ Loud enough to burst his right eardrum, close-range, The game is not only dangerous, but it’s most strange/ I sell rhymes like dimes, The one who mostly keep cash but brag about the broker times.” – Rhyme like Dimes
8. Lupe Fiasco
While Lupe Fiasco may have called it quits on music, he will always be known as one of hip hop’s finest linguists. He is a genuinely intelligent man with deep meaning behind his bars.
With a dislike for the vulgarity and misogyny prevalent in hip hop, Lupe Fiasco basically kickstarted the conscious hip-hop movement. His lyrics focused on social issues knitted in impeccable storytelling.
While his technical abilities can be questioned, the substance behind his words cannot. His music is for the thinking man without being pretentious. So, even if you’re a casual listener, the music is bound to invoke some thought.
“If the rain stops, and everything’s dry, she would cry just so I could drink the tears from her eyes” – The Coolest
“And this commitment from your father, Imparted a deep sense of value you forever harbor/ And we were all so proud as we seen you getting smarter, And bond grow deeper between a mother and a daughter, But you were not a martyr.” – Jonylah Forever
9. Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock just might be the most vocab-rich rapper to ever play the game. In fact, the vocabulary in his works has surpassed that of Shakespeare and the 654-page novel, Moby Dick.
Aesop’s heavy use of poetic devices like homonyms and abstraction often results in complex songs which can be difficult to find meaning in. But his songs are not gibberish at all. There’s plenty of meaning behind each one.
His songs are verbose with borderline genius rhyme schemes. You’ll often find yourself revisiting his songs to get a better gist of them.
“I’m a sovereignty columnist, fathering doom document. Cursed version of a certain Virgin Mary womb occupant.” – Oxygen
“Mirror mirror on the wall, I feel like a f**king dog. Something this depraved is not the product of a loving god.” – Hot Dogs
10. Big L
If you were there to witness the hip-hop scene of the 90s you’d know how respected Big L was in the underground scene. He is one of the greatest MCs to ever come out of New York.
Big L’s freestyling ability was quite fresh for his time. He was witty, funny, and had a flow that forced itself to be remembered. With multi-syllabic rhymes and metaphors popping up in his bars, you could tell his talents.
On some songs, he acted as the pioneer of horrorcore while on others, he talked about his hard-knock life. Unfortunately, his passing came at only 24, robbing us of many more great songs.
“And I get mad hoes, ask Beavis, I got nothing Butthead” – ‘98 Freestyle
“Some say I’m ruthless, some say I’m grim. Once a brother done broke into my house and I robbed him/ I told him, ‘Give up the dough before you get smoked.’ Oh you broke? Now you’re dead broke./ Breaking in cribs with a crowbar, I wasn’t poor, I was po’ — I couldn’t afford the ‘o-r’.” – Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous
Rappers are some of the most creative people in the world. They can take words and turn them into poetry that tells a story or makes a point. With their clever use of metaphors and figurative language, they can paint a picture with their words. This list of lyricists is not definite but certainly showcases some of the best to ever do it.